The Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s biggest arts festival. It’s also hell

The horror! The horror! Image: Getty.

The 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival kicks off this Friday. So what better time to examine how this arts and cultural hub absolutely annihilates one of the UK’s loveliest cities?

If you’re a fan of theatre, comedy, getting pissed up on London prices and watching men eat fire on the street, then you probably already know about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Globally renowned and hugely popular across Britain, the Fringe is the world’s largest arts and culture festival.

The Fringe celebrates performance art by playing host to acts from around the world, and even if you’ve never been you’re probably aware that it’s a major happening that draws in large crowds and big tourist numbers. It’s fun, it’s diverse (in its acts, at least; obviously not its audience) and good news! You don’t even have to leave the country to get to it.

What most people don’t know about the festival, however, is that it takes what is, usually, an adorable, Harry Potter-esque city and turns it into a living, breathing tourist mob monstrosity every single year.  Despite Edinburgh being, essentially, just a very, very large town, the Fringe forces it to contain an unholy number of events in a relatively short period of time, and house enough people to make the whole city look like Oxford Street. Although people know what the Edinburgh Fringe is, they don’t know what the Fringe does to Edinburgh.

Let’s start with some facts. Edinburgh, despite being the capital of Scotland, is not a big city. The population of the local authority area barely creeps above 500,000; look at the urban area alone, and it doesn’t even reach that. It also hosts these half a million people in only 100 square miles, making it incredibly compact. This is especially evident when you realise that

a) most of the city is contained between Morningside and Leith, and

b) a lot of that area is green space, forcing people to live even closer together.

And, like any normal city, it has shops, parks, workspaces, bars, concert venues and people who, you know, have to live their daily lives there.

Most of Edinburgh Image: Google Maps.

This is what Edinburgh looks like during the Fringe. These are some of its more than 300 venues; not all of them make it onto the map below.

Image: The Fringe Society/Google Maps.

As I’m sure you’ve now gathered, this is fucking insane. For a city that’s already small, and whose residents are already packed in like sardines, this is a hellish onslaught of events and pop-up venues that congest the city to a near standstill in its centre.

The reason why the Fringe has to fill up seemingly every free inch in the entire city with a venue? Because Edinburgh’s population more than doubles during the Fringe. Last year’s ticket sales hit approximately 2.5m across its 3,000+ shows in 300+ venues; these figures didn’t even include the attendance at non-ticketed free shows, of which there were 643. This means that a city that already is a bit close for comfort for 500,000 suddenly becomes home to over 1m in literally a matter of days.

Even more insane? The ticket sales are only outdone by the World Cup and the Olympics. That’s right: the Edinburgh Fringe is the third highest ticketed event in the entire world.

The cherry on top, the thing that makes the Fringe extra hellish for the people who live in Edinburgh all year round, is the length of time it runs for. It’s not just for a day or two: you can’t just hide in your flat for the weekend, or grin and bear it because it’ll all be over soon. Nor is it a year-long event, like a public art installation – something where there’s a lot on, but hey, people come and go and it relieve the burden.

No, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival lasts the entire month of August, with events preceding and succeeding the festival. All that means the mayhem last for, effectively, the entire summer.

Oh, god. Image: Ben Snooks/Creative Commons.

For a tourist, I get why this festival has so much appeal. It's busy with people and things to do  at literally all hours of the day and it goes on long enough that it can turn into a proper (albeit, wet) holiday.

But imagine the reality for an local. Edinburgh is a small and pretty quiet place, and most people get everywhere by foot. Even if you're having to commute from one end of the city to the other (say, from Newington to Stockbridge, a good 45 minute walk), you'll pass the dead centre of the city and most of its busiest streets (George Street, Princes Street, The Royal Mile) with relative ease. You won't get stuck behind people who don't know how to walk in cities, because there's plenty of space. The main streets will be only mildly humming at peak hours. Even if you decided to commute by bus (20 minutes) you'll rarely get stuck in traffic.

But then comes the Fringe. Not only is there gridlock on the roads on a constant loop, but most of its streets make Oxford Street on Boxing Day look like a pedestrian’s wet dream. The human walls are also just as unrelenting as the road traffic, lasting from midday until about three in the morning, with a big heave again at five as the clubs let out and the final shows finish. And this happens not just for one day or one weekend or one week; this is a Sisyphean punishment for Edinburgers that lasts for an entire month. All this to the backing track of a tourist-luring bagpipe on every corner. 

To be fair to the Fringe, Edinburgh is never without tourists. It has a surprisingly good food scene, excellent historical attractions (see: castles, underground streets), and the whole place looks like it’s straight out of an American fever dream of what a Disney-fied Scottish city would look like. But the Fringe is a uniquely agonising tourist experience for Edinburgh locals. So for those of you travelling up from the Home Counties, try to keep your slow walking and intrusive, old building photograph taking to a minimum. 


Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?


You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.


Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?



Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.


I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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